Michael Pollan Wants You to Get Back In the Kitchen

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 12:00 PM

Kitchen Elemental

Fire, water, air, and earth: Michael Pollan explores the building blocks of cooking.

1305_SBR_COOKED_ILLO

Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

When I was 10, and my family needed to take some kind of snack to parent–teacher conferences, I pulled out the Betty Crocker Cookbook and made croissants from scratch. (They recalled, in taste and appearance, those from a Pillsbury tube.) By 14 I was buying whole pumpkins from farmers down the road to make pumpkin bread, and at 17 I pickled a dozen eggs as a joke for a friend. I have always been, in other words, a cook—and one who wants to do it herself.

This makes me, in a way, exactly the reader that Michael Pollan had in mind for Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, his thoughtful and impressive follow-up to his first mega-best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But in a very important way, I am probably not the reader Pollan had in mind at all. I come from a working-class family, spent a year on food stamps, and find jokes that revolve around one’s summer home to be off-putting instead of funny. To be honest, I felt vaguely allergic to Omnivore—a fact that, as a writer covering food and poverty, I don’t usually spread around. (Full disclosure: Pollan and I are casual acquaintances, and he has hosted me as a speaker at UC–Berkeley, where he teaches.) The offending allergen? On a diplomatic day I would say “tone;” on a grumpy day, you’d hear “class privilege.”

I bring this up because elitism is one of the most common complaints lobbed at Pollan. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself far less bothered by Pollan’s class privilege in reading Cooked. This is striking given how closely it mirrors Omnivore and draws on the two shorter (and also best-selling) books that served as its coda, In Defense of Food and Food Rules. This time around, Pollan has traded the farms for the kitchen, driven there by a question he is now often asked: “What is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable?” And his answer is simple: Cook.

Our collective failure to get in the kitchen is a big problem, according to Pollan, because it imperils “the health of our bodies, our families, our communities and our land.” We’re more interested in cooking than ever before—witness the rise of the Food Network and its roster of celebrity chefs—yet we are spending less and less time in the kitchen. We’ve become disconnected from what anthropologists have identified as a “defining human activity.” And yet “the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates” more than women going to work or their economic class. So how did we end up with this “cooking paradox,” and where should we be going? Pollan sets off on a four-part journey to find out, exploring what he calls the “transformations” comprised by cooking. Each section is thematically based on one of the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth, and Pollan learns to cook by methods that correspond to each.  His monosyllabic directive, of course, turns out to be not so simple.

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We begin with fire: barbecue, because man first cooked with open flame. For water, we learn to cook meat and vegetables in liquid, a development that required an agrarian society. Air is what yeasts impart to bread to make it rise, and people first fermented food in pits dug in the earth. In each section, Pollan approaches a culinary technique that is supposedly mundane, and then deconstructs it in multiple ways—as a social history, as pro-cooking propaganda, as a scientific explanation—so that it seems new.

Take, for example, the section on barbecue, which has Pollan following two North Carolina pitmasters at the top of their game—which, due to geography, means slowly cooking entire hogs over fire, served sans sauce. One of Pollan’s gifts as a writer is his knack for deftly sharing the detail that you’ll remember hours later and tell to friends. I’d never given thought to how Carolina barbecue is “bound up with the rhythms of the tobacco harvest,” or that while many of the best pitmasters are black, they often work at white-owned and -fronted establishments. These may not be investigative triumphs, but they will be things I remember for years—far more than the specifics of the Maillard reaction and its role in the development of “crackling.”

The two pitmasters are the narrative frame on which Pollan hangs his larger investigations; he spends just as much time on various folk tales and scientific theories about how we learned to cook with fire. He chronicles the work of Richard Wrangham, the Harvard primatologist who argues that we only evolved into Homo sapiens after the adoption of cooking. Then he brings in fables and Greek myth about the beginnings of our ability to use fire to feed ourselves. My favorite? A Chinese tale, by way of the British writer Charles Lamb, about a boy who accidentally burns down a house with piglets inside and, after touching the porcine corpses, puts his fingers to his lips. Delighted but embarrassed by the taboo of eating an animal, he and his father proceed to burn their house down every time a litter of piglets is born and feast accordingly.

At its heart, Cooked is a polemic in favor of cooking, and Pollan is most effective at making his case when he dives into the social science examining what it actually takes to cook. Primarily, this turns out to be time. Time is the recurring theme of all discussions about, “Should we cook?” It is an expression of class difference—those with better jobs can pay someone to cook for them, or buy healthy pre-made food, or have flexible hours so they can cook themselves—and, in the U.S., deeply one of gender. Pollan knows this last point well; in 2009, when he published a precursor to Cooked in the New York Times Magazine suggesting that feminists “had thoughtlessly trampled American cooking in “their rush to get women out of the kitchen”—a needlessly incendiary phrase that persists in Cooked—feminists offered plenty of rebuttal. (In Cooked Pollan notes that women now spend about 40 percent less time cooking than in 1965, with married unemployed women putting in just under an hour a day, and working wives 36 minutes. Yet he leaves out other, complicating—but arguably more interesting—numbers. For example, men spend about one-third less time in the kitchen than women, while low-income women spend slightly more time than the average woman.)

Pollan argues that the adoption of processed food at home is less about feminism and more about food-industry types capitalizing on the time-crunch and gender roles of the 1970s as middle-class women entered the workforce. And if the solution is to cook more at home, he says, it “will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangements of domesticity, and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen, as well as children.” This is a savvy line of persuasion—particularly given research showing that, for women, having a partner vies with employment in terms of predicting time spent in the kitchen.

The question, of course, is whether cooking is something that Americans are willing to do. Pollan brings in Harry Balzer, a veteran consumer researcher specializing in America’s eating habits, to burst that bubble: “We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods, and we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals,” he tells Pollan. “Face it: We’re basically cheap and lazy.”

Author Michael Pollan
Author Michael Pollan

Courtesy of Alia Malley

This is a thorny thicket, and Pollan doesn’t really counter Balzer’s cynicism. But what gives Cooked real heft isn’t its likelihood—or lack thereof—of convincing Americans to head back to the kitchen. Instead it’s the careful rhetorical shift that is rolling along beneath the book’s surface, a signal that our national conversation about food might be shifting, too. Some may read Cooked as just another book by a privileged foodie, but where Omnivore exhorted readers to buy things differently, Pollan is now urging us to do things differently: to “alter, however slightly, the ratio of production and consumption in your life.” Instead of a consumer movement, relegated to those with the funds to participate, Pollan is laying groundwork for something much broader.

This approach isn’t flawless; it’s curious to suggest individual solutions—Cook!—to a problem that Pollan has meticulously shown grew not from individual cooks fleeing the kitchen but an industrial food system hell-bent on shooing them out of it. But by focusing on self-reliance, Pollan is speaking to a core part of the American story, something that traces back to the founding fathers and even pioneer heroine Laura Ingalls Wilder, secret foodie. And that’s probably why my class-angst allergies haven’t bothered me much while reading Cooked.

This is a relief, because class angst makes conversation difficult. It is, at its core, about difference and distance: Who are you to tell me anything if you don’t know the contours of my life? There is still plenty of difference between me and Pollan, who will likely always be a man of means. But the distance? I don’t notice it as much in Cooked. Pollan, ever an aesthete, argues hard for rediscovering the joy of cooking; as a more monetarily challenged gal, I’ve found it a relief to admit that cooking can be a chore—and just do it anyway, because it’s healthier, cheaper, and faster. But we’re both at the same place: in the kitchen, “a little less dependent, and a little more self-reliant, than … before.” It’s not enough to solve the problem of our food system, but it’s enough to start a conversation.

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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. The Penguin Press.

Tracie McMillan, a freelance journalist whose work centers on food and class, is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, was published in 2012. Learn more on her website.

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